The Theater of New England

Manager G. B. Bunnell’s Wonderful Achievements — And the New Grand is to be Beautiful Even More Next Season — The Hyperion Will Also be Transformed.

“New Haven is fast becoming a theater-going city. If some of the older people of the city could be present at the Hyperion on the evening of a first class metropolitan production they would be surprised and astounded to see the audience of the wealth, beauty and aristocracy of the city which is there assembled. But people are slow to recognize the fact that there is virtually a new theater in town. They do not readily understand that there are really two houses in the city where the very finest dramatic, operatic and specialty productions are represented. Yet the people have demanded it and Manager Bunnell has filled the demand beyond even what might be expected. The intention at first was to remodel the Grand opera house. But no feasible plans could be perfected for remodeling and so practically a new theater was built. And the result is the New Grand opera house as it stands to-day in all its beauty and adornment as a home of the drama in New Haven. The old has passed away and the new is a triumph of enterprise and public spirited action. The ground floor and a part of the walls are all that remain intact of the former building as it was. Thus with the two finest theaters in Connecticut under his management, Manager Bunnell has divided his attractions in two classes, Nos 1 and 2. The very best and latest of the metropolitan productions go to the Hyperion. Here one will see the very cream of the best American theatricals. At the New Grand opera house class No. 2 and a few from class No. 1 will be played. Here the shows that are familiar for high prices at the Hyperion will play to more popular prices. Thus, if one was a little, the same show can be seen for much less money at the New Grand. And Manager Bunnell can afford to play popular prices better than almost any other manager by connecting his bookings with the other cities of the state. Manager Bunnell is determined to go on in this line until he has has a first-class theater, a popular home of amusement, which will be recognized as such by the press and the public. Next season the general architecture of the front of this opera house will be entirely transformed, and a large amount of money will be expended in paintings and scenery in the interior. The scenery will be especially fine, and the most skilled artists will be engaged to paint it. The wall paintings and other interior decorations will be of a high order of excellence. There is the groundwork here for the finest theater in New England. The plumbing, heating, lighting and ventilation are perfect, and the exits are such that 2,300 people can go out in three and one-half minutes. No expense has been or will be spared to make the house a model of comfort and elegance — a pleasant daily resort for the most refined ladies and children of the city. There are a great many first class attractions booked for the remaining part of the season, and among them are the following: ‘Katherine Rober,’ ‘Limited Mail,’ ‘Gloriana,’ ‘Silver King,’ ‘O’Dowd’s Neighbors,’ and ‘Span of Life.’

Nor is the Hyperion to be neglected under Mr. Bunnell’s management. This theater has too old and well established a position among the very best people of the city to need much comment. It has always stood at the head, and always will, as a model of excellence and beauty. The management hopes, however, that another season will witness almost a complete transformation of the interior of this theater. ‘For,’ Mr. Bunnell says, ‘I am determined to make all features that meet the eye more pleasing. And I am confident that by another year the people of Connecticut will understand that I am catering to the amusement wants of the public, and mean to please. I am going to bring the best productions from the biggest theaters in the largest cities in the world.’

The foregoing statement is characteristic of the man and exhibits in the compass of a paragraph the prominent trait of his character — to give the people what they want and demand. Mr. Bunnell’s long training with P. T. Barnum has schooled him thoroughly in the art of amusement catering. There is not probably another man in New England today who has had the experience and training in all grades of amusement as he, or who has had such an extended and favorable acquaintance among the profession. This is the ninth year of his theatrical management in New Haven, and the years have been successions of triumphs. Mr. Bunnell, with his able corps of assistants — among whom Mr. George Morton, the genial advertising agent, Messrs. Van Buren and Peterson of the Hyperion, and Mr. John Hendricks of the New Grand are the best known — is fully equipped to supply the people with the amusements they want, for they so thoroughly understand the wants of the New Haven public. The time will come, added Mr. Bunnell, when the Hyperion will be denominated ‘The theater of New England,’ and the New Grand the ‘dairy family resort of Connecticut.’

Mr. Bunnell has a very interesting autograph letter of P. T. Barnum, written in the year 1880, which he shows to his friends. It is now a most valuable document, as being an authentic autograph of Mr. Barnum.”
-Excerpt courtesy of the Library of Congress, Chronicling America, New Haven Daily Morning Journal and Courier, Tuesday, February 14, 1893

The Fascinating Amusement of the Old Puritan Times — The Gradual Evolution of Theatrical Recreation in This Old Colonial Town — The Rapid Developments in Later Years

“As the theatrical season is about to be opened it may be of interest to review the history of the theater and public amusements in this city.

The first planters of New Haven were too serious to feel the need of amusement for themselves or to provide it for their children. The fathers did not attempt, however, to prohibit the younger members of society for providing for themselves with social amusements.

The social amusements of the young people of the first generation were connected with the frequent huskings of the autumnal season, the occasional house raisings, and the regularly recurring trainings, of which were six in number in the year. On the last named occasions soldiers were required to exercise themselves in running, wrestling and leaping.

In 1660 the general court protested against corrupt songs, foolish jestings, mixed dancings and immoderate playing at any sort of sports and games.

When the second generation in their turn were giving place to their successors the amusements of the young people had become still more displeasing to the magistrates, elders, and other persons of gravity.

In July, 1692, the ministers of New Haven county united in proposing a lecture to be preached in the several towns in the county, the object of which was ‘to further religion and reformation in these declining times.’ The town of New Haven in town meeting assembled thankfully accepted the proposal, ‘but recommended to the authority, town officers and heads of families, to take the utmost care they can to prevent all disorders, especially on lecture days, and particularly that there be no horse racings on such days.’

In the latter part of the eighteenth century dancing was very fashionable in New Haven. During the same period the presence of Yale college in the city contributed to the cultivation of the drama. The Linonian society, and at a later date the Brothers in Unity, gave an annual exhibition of tragedies, farces and comedies with such aids of costume and scenery as were in reach. At the anniversary of the society in 1772 the play presented was ‘The Beaux’s Stratagems,’ and among the performers were Nathan Hale, the martyr spy, and James Hillhouse.

The first theatrical entertainment ever given in New Haven by professional actors was given on Thursday evening, April 3, 1800. The Connecticut Journal of that date has this announcement:

‘THEATER. This evening, Thursday, April 3, at Mr. Borth’s Assembly hall, New Haven, will be presented a variety of theatrical entertainments called an evening’s regale, the evening’s entertainment to commence with a monody on the death of General Washington, as lately spoken in the principal theaters of America.
A popular new song called:
‘Nong, Tong, Paw, or John Bull’s Trip to France.’
‘Bucks, have at ye all, or the Picture of a play house.’
The whole to conclude with the popular song called, ‘American Commerce and Freedom.’
Tickets 1s. 6d. each, to be had at the theater.
Performance to commence at 7 o’clock. No person admitted free.’

Theatrical amusement was, however, of slow growth, so that probably no play was presented in New Haven by professionals for thirty years.

In 1847 the city was visited by negro minstrels or by persons calling themselves by that name.

In 1848 the New Haven elocution class gave a dramatic entertainment in the hall of the Mechanic’s institute in Street’s building, corner of Chapel and State streets. In 1850 ‘The Lady of Lyons’ and “The Soar of a Lover’ were given in Exchange hall at the corner of Chapel and Church streets by the same class. Commencing on February 26, 1851, the members of the class gave five dramatic performances and they were so successful that in December of that same year another series was given which lasted four weeks. In 1852 the Homan family gave plays through Christmas week. During the winter and spring of 1853 Mr. George H. Wyatt and his company presented plays.

At the Temple, corner of Court and Orange streets, on September 16, 1853, the Homan family opened the first permanent theater in the city in Exchange hall, under the name of Homan Atheneum, with a new stage and scenery.

The ‘Wyatt’s Dramatic Lyceum’ announced on September 5 that they would give dramatic performances for four weeks from date at the Temple Hall.

In September, 1854, Henry Plunkett became lessee and manager of the Homan theater and named it Plunkett’s Olympic. He introduced a higher class of plays than had been seen in the city. But he was not successful, and gave up the theater after running it for two seasons.

The American theater in a hall corner of Church and Crown streets was opened in 1855, but failed after a short season.

The Union theater in Union Hall, Union street, was opened at the same time.

-Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Chronicling America, New Haven Daily Morning Journal and Courier, Saturday, August 19, 1893

The first of the present theaters to be erected was Music hall on Crown street. It was erected in 1860 by Samuel Peck and opened under his management with a promenade concert by the Philharmonic society of New York on November 19, 1860.

During the summer of ’69 the stage was remodeled and filled with scenery and appliances for dramatic performances.

In 1870 the ownership was transferred to Clark Peck, who changed the name of the theater to Peck’s grand opera house.

In 1884 it was leased to G. B. Bunnell, being known for a time as Bunnell’s museum; later the name was changed to Bunnell’s Grand opera house. The theater was entirely remodeled in 1892.

The present Music hall on Church street was formerly St. Mary’s R. C. Church, and at the completion of the Catholic church on Hillhouse avenue, now St. Mary’s, in 1870, was rented for a theater. From that time till 1881 it passed through several managers’ hands. In 1881 it went into the hands of Press Eldridge, manager, and W. H. Van Buren, treasurer. In 1883 it was partially destroyed by fire. Later in that year Van Buren and Eldridge became sole managers of the theater. In 1885 it was leased to James Cameron. The building was bought by Healy & Bigelow in 1889 and turned into a dance hall.

Proctor’s opera house, Chapel street, was formerly a church, having been built early in the fifties. It was opened as a theater February 19, 1877, under the management of George H. Coe, the opening attraction being the Providence Opera company in ‘Rosedale.’ Miss Cummings next ran the house for a short time. In 1880 Palmer & Ullmer became manager. They held it till 1883, when Horace Wall became the manager. In 1887 Proctor & Turner obtained control of the house, and are still the lessees.

Carll’s opera house was built by Peter R. Carll and a stock company in 1880, and was opened in September of that year. In 1888, G. B. Bunnell became the sole lessee of it, opening with Edwin Booth. It is the second hall of its kind in size to be found in the New England states.”
-Excerpt courtesy of the Library of Congress, Chronicling America, New Haven Daily Morning Journal and Courier, Saturday, August 19, 1893. (top) “Yale Business College. Day and Evening Sessions. The 21st School Year begins Monday, September 4th, 1893. A complete and practical course of business training for young men and women, including penmanship, spelling, arithmetic, rapid computation, bookkeeping, retailing, wholesaling, banking, shorthand, typewriting and telegraphy.” Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Chronicling America, New Haven Daily Morning Journal and Courier, Saturday, August 19, 1893

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